Texas Republicans have historically been more moderate than their national counterparts on the issue of illegal immigration. But that tradition was in question in the 2011 legislative session, as Tea Party-backed Republicans seemed to be pushing their party to the right on the issue. One of the major subplots of the session was Rick Perry’s sanctuary cities bill, which the governor designated as one of his six “emergency” priorities. (That bill would have blocked municipalities from adopting policies that barred local law enforcement from asking those arrested about their immigration status.)

Now, however, the fervor has apparently abated. That much was clear during Perry’s presidential campaign in 2011, as his opponents for the Republican presidential nomination took him to task for having signed the “Texas DREAM Act” in 2001, leading Perry, apparently nonplussed, to retort that “If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they have been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart.” The next year, delegates to the state party’s convention called for a new guest worker program in their official platform. In December, George W. Bush broke the long silence on policy matters that has characterized his post-presidency to urge fellow Republicans to adopt a “benevolent spirit” towards immigration reform. And, finally, fewer hard-line bills regarding immigration were pre-filed for the legislative session that began on January 8 than last session.

It was also clear at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s policy orientation this week in Austin, attended by some 90 legislators, which included a luncheon debate on the subject on Thursday.

Brad Bailey, a Houston restaurateur and co-founder of the Texas Immigration Solution, acknowledged that the GOP needs to recast itself on immigration issues. “We have alienated the fastest growing demographic in the country,” said Bailey, who was part of the group that pushed the GOP to adopt a more moderate stance in its 2012 party platform, despite the protests of what he called a “vocal minority.” Going on, Bailey called for his party to do more “gringo outreach”: “If we do not change this we are going to be the minority party for a long, long time.” 

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, who has thrown himself behind the issue of border security, called America’s immigration policy “antiquated, outdated, and dilapidated.” Immigrants, he said are essential to the American economy: “Texas and America needs a workforce. From agriculture to construction to hospitality, our country is not producing the workforce necessary to meet the market demands of our economy.” Pushing for deportation on a large scale could have a consequence that conservatives would find unpalatable, Staples pointed out. “Do we really need to grow a government big enough to round up 11 million people?” he asked. 

But amnesty, Staples added, was not the answer. “This challenge requires market-based solutions, not artificial political quotas,” he said, without elaborating on what those solutions might be. Linda Vega, founder of Latinos Ready To Vote!, an organization that urges Latinos to embrace conservative principles at the voting booth, seconded Staples’s argument: market demand, she said, should dictate how many guest worker visas are passed out each year.

Joaquín Castro, newly elected to represent the west side of San Antonio in the U.S. House and the lone Democrat on the panel, called on Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform in 2013, which President Obama is expected to take up in his State of the Union speech. This should, he said, include a path to citizenship “for many, not all” of those working the country illegally, provided they pay a fine and complete other requirements. The presence of 11 to 15 million undocumented workers in the U.S. “is not a fact that makes anyone happy, but it is a reality” that must be dealt with, Castro said. Another way to think of it was that unauthorized immigration is a “blessed burden.” “There is a much scarier day in America than the day that everybody wants to come here—that’s the day that nobody wants to come here,” Castro said.

Brian Kennedy, head of the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank, maintained that the founders only wanted as many immigrants to come as could be easily “assimilated and absorbed” into society. “Today, as a country we are doing a horrible job of turning immigrants into Americans,” he said, faulting the nation’s school systems, which, he said, fail to teach students the American history and the core beliefs of the founding fathers. Kennedy also cast doubt on the assertion that immigrants play an essential role in the American economy. “I simply don’t buy the argument that there are millions of jobs available that Americans won’t do,” he said. It was a slightly discordant note. But then, Kennedy had said he represented “the far right of the panel.” Of course, he was from the Claremont Institute. That’s in California.